As I was crossing West Barbee Chapel Road, which divides our local Starbucks from my condo building, a young woman turned and started across the road in the other direction. She was talking on her cellphone as she walked [nothing unusual there] and I caught just a few words -- in a language completely unknown to me. I was reminded of walking across the campus of the University of Durban-Westville in South Africa and hearing students conversing in fascinating, beautiful click languages.
I reflected that I am charmed by the polyglot character of America, a feature of this country that goes as far back as the seventeenth century. But there are a great many people who feel deeply threatened by the mere existence of Americans for whom English is a second or third language. Did you know that in the 1780's there was a vigorous debate about what should be the national language of the new nation coming into existence, with German a strong favorite in some communities? When my grandfather gave Socialist Party speeches from the back of a flatbed truck in Brooklyn in the early years of the twentieth century, it was standard practice for the Party to field speakers in several immigrant languages. My grandfather on occasion spoke in "Jewish," which is to say Yiddish. For a long time, there were Catholic churches in Italian, Polish, or German neighborhoods in America's big cities in which the sermons were routinely delivered in the language of the old country.
I mused on the fact that there is a very deep cultural [and hence political] divide between those of us who welcome the diversity, in much the way that we welcome the array of restaurants with ethnic or national cuisines, and those of us who hate that diversity and experience it as a falling away from the old virtues, a threat to our core existence. My old University of Chicago colleague, David Bakan, did some fascinating work analyzing the statistics used by early behaviorist psychology journals to evaluate submissions, and combining that with a study of the social origins of the early behavioral theorists. He put forward the thesis that Behaviorism in America was the intellectual product of a generation of psychologists who were brought up in small, homogeneous predominantly Protestant towns and experienced a devastating culture shock when they moved to the big city [typically Chicago], where they found themselves in ethnically, culturally, religiously pluralistic surroundings. Behaviorism was their way of coping with the unsettling experience. His statistical analyses showed that Behavioral Psychology journals frequently rejected submissions on the grounds that the authors had not repeated their experiments enough times, even though the results were statistically significant! To the editors, the repetition of experiments many times was a sign of good works, an evidence of the secular equivalent of divine election.
It is not a very wide street, and that is about all that went through my mind before I was on the other side.